Assigning Blame, Versus Sharing Responsibility, for a Nation's Wars

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

You don’t need me to tell you that Phil Klay’s Redeployment is worth your attention. Last year it won the National Book Award for Fiction. But I do want to highlight an Essay he read last night on the PBS Newshour, on the theme of what Klay would tell his young son about his service as a Marine in the Iraq war. The full four-minute version is embedded here; below I’ll mention the part that struck me.

Here is how Klay ends, on the “lessons” of his service. Emphasis added:

I volunteered, after all. All of us did. That’s how we wage war now. A fraction serves, and a majority decides in hindsight which politician to blame it on….

You don’t get to decide the broad course of history, only your role within it. I wish I could evade responsibility for all that’s gone wrong in Iraq and only think about the sacrifices of those I served with, the heroic efforts, the courage of the Iraqis I met, the lives of both Iraqis and Americans saved by the medical staff at my base….

But I can’t. I’m an American citizen, responsible, just like every other citizen, for every part of the war, not just how I felt about the end of my part.

In a democracy, everyone shares responsibility. Troops don’t issue themselves orders. War is paid for by our tax dollars and ordered by politicians we as a people need to hold accountable.

So, I guess this is what I will tell my son. I will tell him it’s my job now and until I die to be an informed citizen. I will tell him about joining institutions, government or otherwise, that are working for a better world.

Blame, versus responsibility: I’ve added emphasis to this passage to highlight the contrast.

In a chickenhawk nation, it’s easy for politicians and public to wait around and decide whom to blame when things go wrong. What’s much harder is accepting responsibility for war-and-peace decisions as they are being made ( for instance, now) and for the lasting consequences, good and bad, foreseeable and not, as they accrue. As I mentioned last week in discussing Nancy Sherman’s book Afterwar, merely saying “thank you for your service” has become a largely empty ritual. The real demonstration of thanks, as Klay points out, is service as an informed, responsible citizen.

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I’ve also mentioned many times the powerful book God Is Not Here: A Soldier’s Struggle with Torture, Trauma, and the Moral Injuries of War, by Lt. Col. Bill Russell Edmonds. Here is a video of Edmonds lecturing on various aspects of moral responsibility, last month at Clark University.